Saudi Arabia temporarily halted religious visits that include stops in Mecca and Medina, which draw millions of people a year as the Islamic world’s holiest cities, to help prevent the spread of coronavirus into the country.
Tourismvisa-holders from countries with reported coronavirus infections will also be denied entry, the Saudi embassy in Washington said in an emailed statement, without naming any countries. The steps are temporary and subject to continuous evaluation, according to the statement.
The government is acting to block the deadly virus as neighboring countries including Kuwait, Bahrain, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates have flagged dozens of cases. No infections had been reported by Saudi Arabian authorities as of Wednesday.
The kingdom is also suspending entry by citizens from Gulf States traveling under their national IDs, as well as travel by Saudis to the Gulf States. Saudis abroad who want to return or Gulf citizens in Saudi Arabia who wish to leave may do so, according to the statement.
Saudi Arabia received more than 7 million visitors for religious tourism in 2017, about 45% of 16 million total arrivals. Inbound tourists spent 94 billion riyals ($25 billion) in 2016, while tourism contributes about 241 billion riyals to the economy. The government forecasts the sector to grow 4.7% per year to constitute about 11% of the economy by 2027.
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Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad, is home to Islam’s holiest shrine inside the Grand Mosque. Medina is where Islam’s founder is buried.
As the fifth and final pillar of Islam, every able-bodied adult Muslim must undertake a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives if they can afford to do so. Saudi is halting visits for the Umrah, a pilgrimage that isn’t compulsory and has fewer rituals than the Hajj.
The fasting month of Ramadan — a favored period to perform the Umrah pilgrimage — starts toward the end of April.
— With assistance by Shamim Adam
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